Monday, April 14, 2014

The Time Travelers Back Pack

Only a couple of weeks now until I can forget the modern world.  Yes, the annual archaeological trek to be a volunteer excavator at the Roman site of Vindolanda.

Originally it was a solo trip, but of late an add on week has lured the Spouse along.  This is a better thing overall, but I do have one lingering bit of pique about it.  I have to use decent luggage.

My wife despises the disreputable Norwegian Army surplus backpack that is my preferred option. Comfortable to tote, more or less legal carry on size (takes a bit of scrunching on some planes but is fine on the Airbus overhead), I have managed to fit two weeks worth of stuff in it with ease.  And that is allowing for rain gear and sufficient changes of clothes for Northumberland weather quirks.

So as I pack for my "trip back in time" I set the back pack aside wistfully.  But not without a bit of musing.

If I were literally going back to Roman times, what could I fit in my back pack that would ensure me a comfortable life?  Oh, not slave girls feeding me grapes kind of comfort, but a few cups of wine a day and a nice visit to the baths on a regular basis.  It is a tricky question.

I would prefer not to bring back blueprints for muskets and the formula for gunpowder.  In science fiction stories this rarely turns out well.  You either get condemned for sorcery or more likely get blank stares as the blacksmiths try to comprehend bridging the gap from hammering bog iron up to running a precision lathe.  So if we leave aside the items that are pure Harry Turtledove and perhaps skip the things that would monstrously damage the time line, what's left?

I suppose you could start with about 40 pounds of this:

Pepper.  Widely used and greatly appreciated.  It was a big part of why the Romans bothered trading with India and lands beyond.  It is also one of the few precious commodities on which we have something of a price quote.  Pliny the Elder comments on the stuff.  Evidently the Romans knew of "long pepper" which went for 15 denarii a pound, white pepper that went for 7, and black pepper for 4.

I would have thought the prices would be higher.  After all the stuff got hauled by sea from Indonesia. But economies of scale one supposes.  I presume Pliny was quoting the price in Rome, perhaps for my friskier Cayenne pepper I could get a premium price out in Londinium.  But still, what I could conveniently carry would only get me around 600 denarii.  That's not bad, but really is less than three years wages for the average Legionary grunt in Pliny's early Empire.  You could do a little better with cloves and ginger perhaps, but Pliny is quite vague on this stuff.  One wonders if he had any specific information on where some of it came from and just what it was.

Oh, I bet I could do better if I kept a few side pockets free for:

I have a pleasing vision of myself as a gentleman spice farmer in southern Gaul....

If you have a darker side, and were very concerned about packing light, I suppose you could bring along a few grams of Polonium.  It has become the preferred undetectable poison for Eastern Bloc assassins and conspiracy kooks. If you believe the "I, Claudius" version of history you might find Empress Livia to be a reliable customer.  But watch your back, there would likely be a dagger aimed at it from every dark corner.

Nah, I have no interest in toppling dynasties.  Too risky anyway.  I want to make money.  And not piddling denarii either.  Lets go for the aureii!  Here's the contents of my Time Traveler's Backpack:

Bulk silkworm eggs.  $19.99 for 2000 or so.  Plenty of room left over for:

This is 10 pounds of powdered "Silk Worm Chow".  That ought to keep the little beggars happy until my first crop of mulberry seeds starts to sprout!

I am totally not kidding about this scheme.  The amount of money flowing from Rome to China for silk was supposedly high enough that the Senate tried to abolish the trade as damaging to the Roman economy.  And just how much was silk worth?

The best measure is probably from the  Edict of Diocletian.  This bit of desperate wage and price control legislation was circa 301 AD, when inflation had nearly wrecked the Roman economy.  So prices are both much higher than in the early Empire and are anachronistically listed in denarii, a fine silver coinage long since debased and out of circulation.  By way of reference our hypothetical Legion soldier now made 1,800 denarii per year.

And a pound of white silk from my industrious little fellow time travelers?  12,000 denarii.  Ah, bring on the grapes.

Note:  I can't claim any originality in my scheme.  The Byzantine Emperor Justinian pulled this off back in the 6th Century AD.  Some speculate that the economic boon from breaking the Chinese silk monopoly helped sustain Constantinople through its long difficult centuries in an increasingly hostile world.

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